by Bret Contreras November 03, 2011
A strength coach is faced with an important decision; to train the neck directly or to omit targeted neck training. Many coaches feel that the neck does not need special treatment as they believe that it gets trained sufficiently during heavy compound movements. Others feel that the neck should be trained directly as they believe that failing to do so would “leave room on the table” in terms of neck strength. Some coaches believe that neck strength is overrated, while other coaches feel that neck strength is an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In this article I’m going to teach you some important concepts in neck training which will allow you to make an educated decision as to whether or not you should train the neck.
The neck can flex, extend, laterally flex, and rotate, just like the rest of the spine. Figure 1 illustrates these joint actions.
It is important, however, to understand which muscles have the best leverage for various motions. Ackland et al. (2011) is the first study to examine muscle moment arms in human neck muscles. Think of muscle moment arms as lever-lengths, and the longer the length the better leverage the muscle has for torque production.
The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) has the largest moment arm (best leverage) for neck flexion, while the superior and middle trapezius fibers have the largest moment arms for neck extension. The splenius capitus and semispinalis capitus also display good leverages for neck extension.
The muscles with the best leverages for neck lateral flexion are the anterior scalenes and SCM. The middle scalenes and levator scapulae also possess significant lateral bending capacity.
The superior and middle trapezius, sternocleidomastoid and semispinalis capitis sub-regions were the greatest contributors to contralateral (opposite side) axial rotation, while the rectus capitis posterior major, obliquus capitis inferior and splenius capitis were the greatest contributors to ipsilateral (same side) axial rotation.
Here’s a direct quote from their paper, which stresses the importance of having strong muscles that produce neck rotation:
Our results demonstrate greater neck muscle torque potential in lateral bending and flexion–extension movements than in axial rotation. Lower capacity of the neck muscles to generate axial rotation torque during vigorous sporting activities may indicate greater vulnerability of the neck to osteoligamentous and muscular damage during forceful axial rotation movements than equivalent flexion–extension and lateral bending movements. As the superior and middle trapezius and sternocleidomastoid had substantial axial rotation torque potential, and are some of the largest neck muscles by cross-sectional area, strengthening of these muscles may significantly enhance active neck rotation torque.
This information is all well and good, but it doesn’t take into account muscle activation. The force produced by a muscle has to do with it’s physiological cross-sectional area (PCSA), moment arm (lever length), degree of activation, and passive contributions (if stretched sufficiently). So just because a muscle has good leverage doesn’t mean that it’s the best muscle for the job as the muscle needs to be highly activated as well to produce large amounts of force. In the case of neck extension, for example, I don’t believe that the traps fire very hard. Test it out for yourself right now and perform a 10 second isometric manual neck extension hold and you’ll see for yourself.
Vasavada et al. (2001) showed that out of the various neck motions, humans are strongest in neck extension, followed by neck lateral bending, followed by neck flexion, followed by neck rotation. Figure 3 will make things easier for you to understand.
As you can see, men are at least twice as strong as women in neck strength at all motions. These results are greater than those found in other studies, for example a study by Chiu et al. (2002) showed that Chinese men possessed only 20-70% more isometric neck strength than women, and Jordan et al. (199) found that males were only 20-25% stronger in isometric neck strength compared to women, and that this trend reversed at around 70 years of age (women’s strength surpassed men as the men’s strength diminished while the women’s strength was maintained).
Over the years I’ve noticed that strength coaches are biased toward neck extension strength, probably because of the popularity of the neck harnesses. While neck extension strength is important, it is my belief that for many sports the neck should be strong in all directions, such as martial arts, football, rugby, and hockey.
For example, we need eccentric neck flexion strength to absorb neck extension forces as in a left hook to the nose.
We also need eccentric neck flexion strength to absorb collisions in football, which can be downright barbaric at times.
We need eccentric neck lateral flexion strength to absorb strikes from the side, as in a right cross to the left jaw.
We need full range concentric and eccentric neck extension strength to defend against the Muay Thai clinch.
We need eccentric neck rotation strength to absorb strikes to the jaw as in a left hook to the jaw.
Strength and Flexibility
Examining 18 male subjects, Maeda et al. (1994) showed that 8 weeks of 3 x 10 eccentric or concentric training significantly increased neck isometric strength (38% in the concentric group and 40% in the eccentric group) and neck girth (4.9% in the concentric group and 5.5% in the eccentric group).
In a study involving 50 subjects, Stump et al. (1993) showed that football players performing targeted neck training 5 times per week saw superior results in terms of neck size, strength, and flexibility compared to football players who simply performed traditional resistance training and practice.
In a study examining 50 men and 28 women over a 12 week period, Pollock et al. (1993) found that isometric neck extension strength increased via both dynamic and dynamic + isometric training, and that training the neck twice per week was superior to training the neck once per week. This study showed that just one set was sufficient for neck strengthening and subjects saw increases from 18-33% of isometric neck extension strength depending on the range of motion tested.
In a study involving 32 subjects, Burnett et al. (2005) showed that 10 weeks of machine neck training was superior to theraband neck training in terms of isometric strength. The machine group saw 65% increases in static neck flexion strength, 63% in static neck extension strength, and 53% and 49% in left and right static lateral flexion strength. The band group saw gains of 42%, 30%, 27% and 24%, respectively.
A very large study involving 180 women with chronic neck pain over the course of an entire year showed that a strength training group increased isometric strength significantly (maximal isometric neck strength had improved flexion by 110%, rotation by 76%, and extension by 69%), as did an endurance training group but not quite as well (the respective improvements in the endurance training group were 28%, 29%, and 16%) with slight improvements in the control group that just performed aerobics and stretches (10%, 10%, and 7%, respectively). Furthermore, neck range of motion increased as well, showing the largest improvements with the strength training group. Finally, pain and disability decreased as well, showing the best improvements with the strength group. An interesting aspect of this study is that subjects in the strength and endurance groups were performing bodyweight squats, sit ups, and back extensions, in addition to dumbbell shrugs, presses, curls, bent over rows, flies, and pullovers, and of course neck exercises as well (Ylinen et al. 2003).
A very interesting study by Conley et al. (1997) split 22 active college students into 3 groups: a resistance training group that performed squats, deadlifts, push presses, bent over rows, and mid-thigh pulls, a resistance training plus neck training group that performed all of the aforementioned exercises in addition to neck extension, and a control group that didn’t train. Subjects trained 3x/week for 12 weeks and then had MRI’s taken and tested out their neck extension strength.
The resistance training group failed to increase their neck extension strength, whereas the resistance training plus neck training group increased neck extension strength by 34%. The resistance training group failed to increase in neck hypertrophy, whereas the resistance training plus neck training group increased in neck muscle cross-sectional area by around 13%, mostly in the splenius capitus (3%), semispinalis capitus (6%), and cervicis muscles (5%).
I trained some older women at my studio back in the day whose necks would fatigue from simply performing thoracic extensions off the foam roller or front planks. I tested them and found that they could barely perform bodyweight neck flexion and extension. I was not happy with this weakness as I don’t feel that it’s wise to go through life with a weak neck. Within a month I was able to bring their dynamic and isometric neck strength up very rapidly by prescribing just one set of supine neck flexion off a foam roller and one set of prone neck extension from a quadruped position.
My buddy Sam here in Auckland just conducted an experiment and performed dynamic neck exercises (one set each of flexion, extension, and lateral flexion) 3x/week for one month. During this time his neck grew an entire inch.
A case could be made for the inclusion for just about every type of training out there, and it’s up to the strength coach to prioritize qualities and maximize the efficacy of the training session. Neck training is not demaning on the CNS, does not require much volume to see good strength gains. They can easily be integrated into the training session during the warm-up or interspersed between sets of lower or upper body movements. Isometric neck training is probably the safest route of training, but dynamic training probably confers benefits that isometric training doesn’t. One set of manual, towel, band, standing Swiss ball, weighted harness, or partner assisted exercise from the different vectors (flexion, extension, right lateral flexion, left lateral flexion, right rotation, and left rotation – totalling 6 sets) is sufficient. Isoholds can be held for ten seconds, and dynamic sets can be performed for 10 repetitions. Neck training doesn’t need to be performed year round and can simply be included for 3-4 different months out of the year. It is my opinion that targeted neck training for collision sport athletes is a wise idea and should be implemented for maximum neck strength, which could decrease the likelihood of injury and increase performance.
Here is a really strong dude performing dynamic neck exercises:
Here are some good static neck exercises:
Ackland DC, Merritt JS, Pandy MG. Moment arms of the human neck muscles in flexion, bending and rotation. J Biomech. 2011 Feb 3;44(3):475-86.
Vasavada AN, Li S, Delp SL. Three-dimensional isometric strength of neck muscles in humans. Spine. 2001;26:1904–1909.
Chiu T T, Lam T H, Hedley A J. Maximal isometric muscle strength of the cervical spine in healthy volunteers. Clin Rehabil 2002. 16772–779.779.
Jordan A, Mehlsen J, Bülow P M. et al Maximal isometric strength of the cervical musculature in 100 healthy volunteers. Spine 1999. 241343–1348.1348.
Maeda A, Nakashima T, Shibayama H. Effect of training on the strength of cervical muscle. Ann Physiol Anthropol. 1994;13:59–67.
Stump J, Rash G, Semon J, Christian W, Miller K. A comparison of two modes of cervical exercise in adolescent male athletes. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1993;16:155–160.
Pollock ML, Graves JE, Bamman MM. Frequency and volume of resistance training: effect on cervical extension strength. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1993;74:1080–1086.
Ylinen J, Takala E ‐ P, Nykänen M. et al Active neck muscle training in the treatment of chronic neck pain in women. A randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2003. 2892509–2516.2516.
Conley MS, Stone MH, Nimmons M, Dudley GA. Specifity of resistance training responses in neck muscle size and strength. Eur J Appl Physiol. 1997. 75:443-8.
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